The Evolution of the Baseball From the Dead-Ball Era Through Today

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 18, 2013

Cut open a baseball, and inside you'll find a glowing orb of happiness with a dash of hopes and dreams.

This according to my imagination, anyway, which is admittedly not the most accurate source.

According to actual, you know, reality, baseballs are made of much more mundane things: cork, rubber, yarn, hide, etc. Cut open a baseball, and you won't find anything worth bragging to your friends about.

If you really want to impress them, what you should do is tell them all about how baseballs have evolved over the years. They've come a long way since the game's prehistoric days and the Dead-Ball Era.

It's quite the story, and now's the time to step into the TARDIS and relive it.

The Dead-Ball Era

We don't know much about what baseballs were like in the early days, but we generally know that no two baseballs were identical.

According to a 1975 article from The New York Times, pitchers just used to make their own balls. Knowing that, it's not the least bit surprising that Baseball-Reference.com tells tales of baseballs that varied in size and weight and were much softer than modern balls.

The National League was founded in 1876. That year, a pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings named A.G. Spalding pitched a design that the league chose to adopt as its standard. That's also how Spalding's sporting goods business came to power.

At the center of the Spalding ball was a core of rubber that tended to favor pitchers. Per Baseball-Reference.com, an average of 3.94 runs per game were scored from the time Major League Baseball was formed in 1901 to 1910. That span also featured a average of 0.13 home runs per game.

Imagine a league filled with Placido Polancos, and you'll have a pretty good idea what things were like.

However, things changed during the 1910 World Series. John McMurray, head of SABR's Dead-Ball Era research committee, told The New York Times in 2011 that it was during the 1910 Fall Classic that the league introduced a new ball that had a center of cork rather than rubber.

The new cork-centered ball was put back into play in 2011, and the pendulum proceeded to swing away from pitchers and towards the hitters.

The 1910 season saw an average of 3.83 runs and 0.14 home runs per game. The 1911 season, by contrast, saw an average of 4.51 runs and 0.21 home runs per game. Frank Schulte led the league with 21 home runs, a figure that more than doubled the league-leading total in 1910.

The offensive boom lasted through 1912 and 1913, but things started going back to normal in 1914 and the trend continued through 1919. In that span, games saw an average of 3.72 runs and 0.16 home runs per game.

McMurray chalked up the decline of offense to a new trend that was popularized by a hurler named Russ Ford: scuffing the baseball. It's also worth noting that the spitball was legal in those days, and it's fair to conclude that many pitchers were gleefully partaking.

Whatever it was, the calming of the offensive numbers didn't last for long. Changes were made to the ball on the eve of the '20s, and that's when the Dead-Ball Era turned into the Live-Ball Era.

The Live-Ball Era

Allow me to spin you a yarn about yarn.

According to a 1946 New York Times article, a bit of Australia started going into baseballs in 1920 when Spalding started using Australian wool on the insides. William McNeil wrote in The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball that the new yarn was stronger and allowed for a more tightly wound ball.

The new ball proved to be a lively one. So the players thought, anyway.

After averaging 3.88 runs and 0.20 home runs per game in 1919, the league averaged 4.36 runs and 0.26 home runs per game in 1920. By 1925, the league was averaging 5.13 runs and 0.48 home runs per game, and complaints about the new "rabbit ball" were coming from all over.

The National League's owners sought to quell the unrest in 1925. According to The New York Times, they decided in a midsummer meeting that the Senior Circuit would continue to use the rabbit ball, in large part due to the testimony of Professor Harold A. Fales of Columbia University.

What Professor Fales determined after a lengthy study was this:

The 1925 ball is larger in size, weighs more, and gives the pitcher much less control in that the seam of the ball is much smoother and the thread of same almost completely countersunk so as to be flush with the leather of the seam. The elasticity of the ball for small heights of fall, namely 13.5 feet, is practically the same.

It may indeed have been harder for pitchers to grip the rabbit ball. Walks experienced an uptick in the 1920s, going from an average of 2.7 per game between 1901 and 1919 to an average of 3.0 per game between 1920 and 1929.

Also working against pitchers were new rules put in place in 1920 that outlawed spitballs and regulated intentional walks, and Professor Fales also highlighted another newer rule as a factor. Before the 1920s, the baseballs in play in a given game were rarely changed and the balls were thus allowed to become dirtier and softer throughout the course of a game. Balls were exchanged much more frequently starting in 1920, and that benefited the hitters.

And so the rabbit ball was kept in place, with the overall message to the league's pitchers being something along the lines of: "DEAL WITH IT."

They did, but the punishment they were forced to endure in 1929 and 1930 proved to be too much even for the owners.

Offense exploded in those two seasons to the tune of 5.37 runs and 0.59 home runs per game. The 1930 season was particularly ridiculous, as Hack Wilson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Chuck Klein all topped 40 home runs and the league's batting line was an absurd .296/.356/.434.

Per an essay by Jay Jaffe that was excerpted on Deadspin last year, 1931 was the year when the cork center was replaced by a "cushion cork" pill that was a mixture of cork and ground rubber. Scoring and home runs promptly went down to 4.81 runs and 0.43 home runs per game.

There continued to be slight differences between the balls being used in the American and National League for the next couple years, but the two leagues agreed to a standardized ball in 1934.

And for the first time ever, the specific ingredients of a Major League Baseball ball were revealed. From The New York Times:

The ball will have a cushion cork centre weighing 7/8 of an ounce, the cushion being provided by one layer of black rubber and another of red, the reason for which was not made known.Then come 71 yards of blue gray woolen yarn, building the ball to a circumference of 7 3/4 inches and the weight to 3 1/8 ounces. Next, 41 yards of white woolen yarn is wrapped on, and the circumference has become 8 1/4 inches, the weight 3 7/8 ounces. A coat of special rubber cement is applied.Two more wrappings of yarn, the first 41 yards of blue-gray woolen, the second of a final 100 yards of 20/2 ply fine cotton, provide a circumference of 8 7/8 inches and a weight of 4 3/8 ounces, to which another coat of rubber cement is applied.The cover is a special tanned horsehide, weighing 1/3 ounce and 5/100 of an inch thick, and sewn with a double stitch of four-strand red thread. The finished ball is 9 to 9 1/8 inches in circumference and should weigh 5 to 5 1/8 ounces.

The writer of that article said it best: "The specifications...are highly technical and indicate that there is much more to the making of a baseball than any but those engaged in the trade suspected."

You'd be surprised how little the exact specs have changed since 1934, but baseball did experience a slight complication a few years later when the peoples of the earth got into a worldwide disagreement.

World War II

Major League Baseball lost a fair amount of talent to World War II in the 1940s, as stars such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller left to go serve their country.

Everyone knows that, right?

Of course they do, but one of the lesser known impacts of the war on baseball had to do with the ball. Noel Hynd of Sports Illustrated wrote all about it back in 1985:

Rubber is an essential ingredient of a baseball's core, and it always has been....But when the Japanese seized Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, the U.S. was cut off from its usual source of supply. About a ton of the stuff was required in the construction of a tank and about half that for a long-range bomber. So Uncle Sam banned the use of rubber in all items not essential to the war effort, and that included baseballs.

The powers that be in baseball found themselves scrambling to find a suitable stand-in, and one wasn't introduced to the press until about five weeks before Opening Day in 1943.

Here's Hynd again:

It looked and felt like a real baseball, but it had a granulated cork center instead of the high-grade cork and rubber mixture, and there was no rubber shell or rubber wrapping around that core. Instead, to give it a little pop, there were two hard shells of a rubberlike substance inside the ball, hugging the core...For the first time, Americans heard the ominous word 'balata,' which was what the two shells were made of.

Balata resembles rubber, but is made from tropical trees and was normally used in the manufacturing of industrial gaskets and the insulation of telephone lines. It lacks rubber's elasticity, and that would become painfully obvious once the ball was put in play in 1943.

Right out of the gate, nobody could hit. By the end of April, the league was hitting just .223 with a .270 slugging percentage. Danny Litwhiler was leading baseball in home runs with a grand total of two.

Baseball once again found itself resorting to improvisation. The ball was tweaked over and over again as the 1943 season went along. Eventually, it became, in Hynd's words, "acceptably lively," and the league ultimately managed a respectable 3.91 runs and 0.37 home runs per game.

That was it for the balata ball. Synthetic rubber was being mass-produced in the States by 1944, and there was plenty of it for baseballs. The league was able to go back to its usual design in '44, and offense picked up to the tune of 4.17 runs and 0.42 home runs per game.

How many changes has the ball undergone in the 70 or so years since then?

Short answer: Not many.

Post-WWII to Today

In 1958, almost 25 years after Major League Baseball first made the specifications of its baseballs public, J.E. McMahon of The New York Times sought to update the public on the contemporary composition of a major league baseball.

See if you can spot the differences:

Major league baseballs start with a core of cork mixed with a small amount of rubber. This is covered by a layer of black rubber, then by a layer of red rubber. It is then ready for the winding process, where yarn is added to the core. This is done on a revolving machine...in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room. Yarn windings consist first of 121 yards of rough gray wool, forty-five yards of white wool then 53 yards of fine gray wool and finally 150 yards of fine white cotton. After these layers have been added to the sphere, it is coated with rubber cement. Then two pieces of horsehide in the shape of the figure '8' are hand-stitched with red thread to cover the ball.….Each ball has 108 hand-stitched double stitches in its cover. A finished ball weighs from 5 to 5 1/4 ounces and measures not less than 9, nor more than 9 1/4 inches.

Nothing was different about the center of the ball, as it still consisted of a cushion cork pill surrounded by two layers of rubber. The wrappings changed, however, as did the size and weight. The old balls needed to be between 9 to 9 1/8 inches in circumference and 5 to 5 1/8 ounces. The new balls were allowed to be an eighth of an inch thicker and an eighth of an ounce heavier.

More home runs were being hit in the late 1950s than there had been in the mid 1930s, but chalking that up to the ball alone would be to ignore the fact that home run hitters were simply more common. There were 10 30-homer guys in 1929 and 1930 and that was an extreme rarity. But there were 11 such players in 1950 and at least 10 in 1953, 1955, 1956, 1958 and 1959.

A few more changes took place in the 1970s. Per the Jay Jaffe essay, the outer covering was changed from horsehide to cowhide due to a shortage of the former in 1974, and in 1975 baseball announced that it was ending its century-long partnership with Spalding over cost concerns.

Rawlings took over manufacturing duties in 1977, and offense just so happened to experience a spike. After averaging 3.99 runs and 0.58 home runs per game in 1976, baseball averaged 4.47 runs and 0.87 home runs per game in '77.

But as Jaffe explained, the spike wasn't necessarily anything sinister:

The 1977 rates weren't unprecedented; both leagues had been at similar heights as recently as 1970, itself a spike year for homers. The 1976 rate of 0.58 homers per game was the lowest since 1946, even lower than 1968. Prior to the switch in manufacturer, the last major change to the ball had come in 1974, when the outer coating switched from horsehide to cowhide because of a shortage of the former. Homer production fell from 0.80 per game to 0.68, a 14.7 percent drop. It increased 2.4 percent in 1975, but then fell off another 17.4 percent in 1976.Given those ups and downs, it's possible that Spalding didn't perfect the process of using the new covering before surrendering the manufacturing process to Rawlings, or that the balls used at the end of their run were leftovers that were slightly substandard in resilience, leading to the dip in home runs. It would take a Deep Throat to provide insight into the matter, but unlike in the Watergate scandal of that decade, none has ever come forward.

In short: Who knows?

In any event, Rawlings is still the official supplier of baseballs for MLB.

These many years later, a baseball is still a cushion cork center with three layers of wool yarn and a final layer of what Jaffe says is "cotton-polyester." The finished product must still be between 9 and 9 1/4 inches in circumference and 5 and 5 1/4 ounces.

Of course, conspiracy theorists love to ramble on about how Major League Baseball is still willing to juice the ball whenever it desires more offense. It's certainly possible that a juiced ball contributed to the home run binge that occurred during the Steroid Era, as Jaffe acknowledged in his essay, and whispers of juiced balls still pop up every now and then.

The thing to keep in mind is that intentionally juicing the ball wouldn't be an easy task to carry out. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote a couple years ago:

In order to juice balls, MLB would need cooperation among the cork makers in Mississippi, the yarn spinners in Vermont and the hide sewers in Costa Rica, plus those who test the balls in St. Louis, and the final layers of quality control, the clubhouse attendants who rub them with mud and the umpires who keep a bagful at a time.

In other words, juicing the ball would require a complicated conspiracy that a lot of people would have to be in on. That's a lot of trouble to go through for the sake of trying to generate a little extra offense.

So juice in the ball? Nah, probably not. Not now, maybe not ever. It's more likely that the ball has always consisted of cork, rubber, yarn and hide, and always will.

At least until science figures out how to make a glowing orb of happiness with a dash of hopes and dreams.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

subscription required for archived New York Times articles.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.